Sun, Oct 08, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The Amish and modernity

The Amish do not live entirely in the past. In fact, it's their willingess to adapt that has allowed them to survive, and even prosper, in the 21st century

By Ed Pilkington  /  THE GUARDIAN , NICKEL MINES, PENNSYLVANIA

In all the thousands of column inches of newsprint, amid all the hours of satellite television coverage devoted to the carnage in the schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, last week, it was the little details that stood out and gave you pause.

The fact that the police had to use vans to carry parents to hospital to be at the bedsides of their mortally wounded children because they refused to go by police helicopter. The scene of worried mothers timidly peeking over the heads of television cameramen filming a press conference near the school. While the pictures were being beamed instantly to Shanghai, they had to be there in person as they had no televisions to watch at home. The added sensitivity the authorities had identifying the bodies because there were no photographs to match against.

There is something about those snippets of life in the Amish community of Lancaster County that is strangely hard to deal with. On top of the sheer horror of the execution of five girls by a milk truck driver, there is bewilderment.

How can it be, in this digital age where news spreads at the speed of light through mobile phones, palmtops, satellite dishes and cable, that people living within a few kilometers of the tragedy were still learning by word of mouth of what Charles Carl Roberts IV had done hours after he had unloaded his 9mm semi-automatic handgun?

How can it be that he chose to inflict his revenge for some slight he suffered at the age of 12 on girls from a community whose very existence is the antithesis of the act he committed? The Amish are pacifist. At times of war they are conscientious objectors, prepared for civilian duties such as running fire departments but refusing anything military.

The community where Roberts exacted his revenge, 80km west of Philadelphia, has no police force and no guns. In the land of the National Rifle Association, that is quite something.

Anyone who can recall Witness -- the 1985 Harrison Ford thriller in which an eight-year-old Amish boy is the only witness to a murder -- will have a feeling for the setting of Lancaster County. Green rolling hills peppered with Holstein cattle, weather-beaten barns, unadorned buildings in washed-out colours, and the famous black horse-drawn buggies.

Add to that the "plain" dress, as they call it -- simple homemade clothes, buttons not zips, braces not belts, and the beards for men and the uncut hair for women pinned up under white lace hats like Victorian parlour maids. Around 25 percent of everyone in the community has the surname Stoltzfus. It all looks like what it is -- a community of agrarians largely set in aspic since the late 19th century.

Note the word largely.

Among the many misrepresentations of the Amish is that they are a group utterly impervious to modernity and shunning the world. In reality, they are the product of change, some of it dramatic.

The emergence of today's Amishes is a story of many schisms. Their parent faith, Mennonitism (or Anabaptism), was born of a split in Switzerland in 1525, when the Mennonites broke from the Protestant reform church in a dispute over infant baptism.

Later, in Switzerland in 1693, the Amish broke from the wider Mennonite community in a dispute over the shunning of those who had been excommunicated from the fold. The Amish emigrated to Pennsylvania around the 1730s to benefit from the Quaker William Penn's offer of protection for persecuted religions.

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